In Bid to Counter Iran, Ayatollah in Iraq May End Up Emulating It

NAJAF, Iraq — In the struggle to transform Iraq from a dictatorship to a democracy after the American-led invasion in 2003, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest spiritual authority for many of the world’s Shiite Muslims, stood out as a singular champion of the effort to hold direct elections and ensure that politicians, and not clerics, rule the country.

In doing so, he shaped the relationship between religion and politics here as distinctly different from the Shiite theocracy in Iran, where another ayatollah wields supreme power.

Now, in the face of concerns over the growing power of Iran and its militia proxies amid a sectarian war in Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani has made one of his biggest interventions in Iraqi politics, to try to strengthen the Iraqi state, experts say.

For more than two months he has issued instructions, through a representative during Friday sermons, to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to hold corrupt officials accountable, to reform the judiciary and to support the national security forces instead of Iran-backed militias. Ayatollah Sistani’s son, meanwhile, has kept up direct phone communication to the prime minister’s office, pushing for quicker reforms.

This latest intervention has provoked a new round of questioning by political leaders and diplomats in Baghdad: As Ayatollah Sistani has stepped in, once again, in the name of helping a country plagued by crisis, is he actually creating a fundamental shift toward clerical rule?

“Many people are surprised, very surprised, when they see Sistani so involved in politics,” said a senior Shiite leader in Baghdad who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be seen as critical of Ayatollah Sistani. Referring to Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and its revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he said, “In reality, in practice, he is doing what Khamenei does, and what Khomeini did.”

Aged 85, Ayatollah Sistani is frail, has often traveled to London for medical treatment, and is rarely seen in public. Still, he frequently greets visitors in his bare-bones office in a rented building in Najaf that is down a narrow alleyway not far from the Imam Ali Shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.

As the supreme Shiite spiritual leader — whose religious authority surpasses that of Iran’s supreme leader — he instructs the pious in how to pray, how to wash and what to eat. Through his website, he recently advocated the use of body armor by fighters battling the Islamic State, prohibited women from using cellphones to contact strange men, and advised that men should not have goatees.

Despite his undeniably powerful influence, his public role in Iraq has often been described as “fatherly”: guiding politics from on high, intervening at difficult times, but otherwise staying aloof from the fray of governing.

This approach, known in Najaf as the “quietist” tradition, has distinguished Iraq from Iran, and Najaf from Iran’s holy city of Shiite scholarship, Qom. It is part of a historical rivalry between the two ancient cities of Shiite scholarship, one that an official in Najaf described as being “like Oxford and Harvard.”

But amid the current crisis gripping Iraq, from the war with the Islamic State to government corruption and the threat Iranian-backed militias and their political leaders pose to Mr. Abadi and the Iraqi state, Ayatollah Sistani has made a new calculation.

“In recent months he felt a great danger on the political and security scene,” said Ali Alaq, a Shiite lawmaker in Baghdad., “He felt a patriotic duty to act,” he continued, and using an honorific for the ayatollah added: “Sayyid Sistani represents the conscience of the Iraqi people.”

So far, though, Ayatollah Sistani’s push for reforms, while embraced by Mr. Abadi, has borne little fruit, underscoring the opposition among the prime minister’s rivals and the depths of corruption and dysfunction. Mr. Abadi has reduced the salaries of lawmakers and the number of their bodyguards, and has eliminated several high-level positions, including deputy prime minister and vice president, but there has been no serious effort yet on corruption or reforming the judiciary.

Last year, Ayatollah Sistani issued a widely heeded call for young men to take up arms against the Islamic State. But that fatwa resulted in a constellation of new militias, and the growth of existing ones that are controlled by Iran rather than the Iraqi state. The influence of Iran and its militias in Iraq has grown as they have become essential to the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Ayatollah Sistani has become increasingly concerned that those militias are a threat to the unity of Iraq, experts say, in part because many of the militia leaders and their affiliated politicians have challenged efforts by the government to reconcile with Iraq’s minority Sunnis, a priority for the clerical leader.

Jawad al-Khoei, the secretary general of his family’s Khoei Institute, a religious institute and charity in Najaf, said of Ayatollah Sistani: “This time it is very serious. He is an old man now and maybe he considers that this will be the last thing he does in his life.”

Analysts say that despite his concerns, Ayatollah Sistani is not opposed to an Iranian role in Iraq.

“He believes Iran’s presence is necessary in Iraq but it needs to take wiser policies,” said Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has studied at the seminary in Qom and has written extensively about Ayatollah Sistani.

Mr. Khalaji said that when it comes to Iran, Ayatollah Sistani is primarily worried about tensions between Sunnis and Shiites and Iran’s role in worsening sectarian divisions in Iraq.

But even as he moves to diminish Iranian influence in Iraq, he is mimicking the ways of the Iranian system.

One diplomat in Baghdad, referring to the Shiite holy cities from where instructions to politicians are given at Friday sermons, noted that in much the same way as Iranian political leaders look to Qom for guidance, “Every Friday we look to Karbala and Najaf.”

Here in Najaf, where Ayatollah Sistani, three other senior ayatollahs and countless clerics collectively represent the Shiite religious establishment, known as the marjaiya, there is a sense of regret for lending crucial support for Iraq’s Shiite political class in the years after the 2003 invasion.

The marjaiya’s support over the years lent crucial legitimacy to the Shiite religious parties that came to dominate politics and that are now the source of great anger for the masses that began protesting against Iraq’s government in August.

“We are all suffering from the past,” said Naseer Kashif al-Gita, a cleric in Najaf. “We need to force the politicians to implement things. The role of the marjaiya is to be the protector of the rights of society.”

Mr. Gita is among the clerics who support Ayatollah Sistani’s intervention in politics, and, like some others here, advocates an even more forceful role.

“If it were up to me, I would have taken more drastic measures,” he said.

The question, then, is whether Ayatollah Sistani’s prominence in politics will be lasting — and whether there is a growing desire among the public and political leaders for that increased role.

Joost Hiltermann, the program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, recently visited Najaf and wrote in The New York Review of Books, “Some members of Iraq’s Shia elite are saying the Iranian approach may provide the answer for the country’s ills, and criticize Sistani for being insufficiently forceful in his interventions.”

Yet, Ayatollah Sistani’s son, Muhhamed Ridha Ali, in a brief interview here, suggested that the intervention in politics is not designed to be permanent.

“Maybe after one year he will be silent,” he said.